Tribeless in McDonaldsland

Golden arches, milkshakes and fries, that redheaded clown, over a gazillion hamburgers served. McDonald’s is one of the great symbols of corporate America. This is my cultural inheritance, at least what the powers of my childhood wanted for me. The powers of my childhood didn’t understand me at all. I knew I was a sagebrush, but they tried to make me into a marigold.

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The sagebrush in my front yard lives quietly among neighbors’ marigolds and bluegrass lawns

I’m sorry, powers of my childhood. I can’t accept your world. I can’t accept the trademarked, artificial culture that’s been peddled my whole life on cereal boxes and milk cartons, by housekeeping magazines and smiley television spokesmen. It’s a beautiful dream you tried to give me, powers of my childhood, this American Dream. If only it wasn’t off limits to most of humanity because of skin color, gender, or financial status. If only it wasn’t an illusion that only seems real within the male, white-privileged world.

It is no coincidence that the clown has red hair. Clan McDonald is one of the great clans of Scotland, a stronghold of redheaded warriors, ancient and fierce. But now it’s all about two-all-beef patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun (or if you’re under age 40, you’re supposed to be lovin’ it).

In my veins runs the native blood of Algonquins, Irish Clans, Gauls, and Vikings. This indigenousness is my most powerful weapon in the battle with McDonaldsland. But being raised in the world of marigolds, I’ve not inherited most of the culture, language, and connection to my own ancestral tribes. Because of this I’ve lost much of my power. Still I persist, recognizing that indigenousness may be the only real hope for the future of humanity. McDonaldsland is not sustainable, yet corporations are still focusing on their profit margins while continuing to eradicate things like sagebrush in the process.

I recently read a book called Planting in a Post-Wild World, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. Their landscaping approach is based on recognizing and embracing the mixed nature of plant communities, using native and introduced species together to heal our scarred landscapes. Maybe this is can be a metaphor for human cultures too. There are a lot of us sagebrush out here, with mixed heritage but a unified purpose. Maybe we can help reclaim some of our own damaged landscapes by opposing the corporate mindset that scarred them in the first place. We can hold out against McDonaldsland a little longer.

 

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The Old Red Bike

This year for my birthday, my husband, Joseph, reunited me with an old friend. I’d been wanting to ride my bicycle to work, but the years had deteriorated it to the point I couldn’t ride it anymore. Instead of finding a new bike, Joseph had my old friend restored, and he gave me a lot more than just a way to work.

Joseph understands that there are memories in my old red bike’s chrome-moly frame. It was made before most people knew what mountain bikes were, before these machines had titanium stems or shock absorbers, before my young dreams of adventure in mountains, deserts, and forests turned into old memory.

Some of my memories are still on its fire-engine-red frame, so Joseph asked that the frame not be repainted.

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He understands that I still love the sticker from Alamosa Schwinn Cyclery because it takes me right back to the frigid February day in 1984 when we newlyweds spent everything we had to order these wondrous new “Rockhoppers.” Some of the rusted little pits in the paint must have come from rides in the South San Juan Mountains, where I collected samples of the flora of Colorado for my early botany classes at Adams State College. Some must have come from the gravel roads of the San Luis Valley.

Some of the pits, too, must have come from pebbles and sand at the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. We arrived early in the spring of the bike’s first year and asked the park ranger on duty where we could ride. He asked to see the Rockhoppers because he’d heard of them, and he admired them as he told us that the best place would probably be the four-wheel-drive roads at the park. Who could have guessed that the Canyonlands would soon become one of the great mountain bike meccas in the United States?

Joseph knows I love the California licenses adorning the frame below the Schwinn sticker because they are memories of California. There, I studied botany in grad school at the University, and I rode my red bike all over the Berkeley Hills and beyond. During those years, we had no car, so I even rode the red bike to the grocery store.

Joseph remembers how I pedaled this bike all over trails in California until I became too big with our first child and had to switch to hiking instead. He remembers how we mounted a baby seat on the back so I could take that little child, Kerry Joseph, riding. We explored trails along the Missouri River in South Dakota until I grew heavy with our second child, Lorien Rose. Not long after, back in Colorado, she was the little one on the back of my old red bike while Kerry rode alongside.

I rode to work at a plant nursery when the children were small and to my job as an ecologist as they grew older. I rode in the desert, in places with names like “Rustler’s Loop” and “Widowmaker” and sometimes in the mountains through groves of pine and aspen. This bike saw some wildflower-filled miles near the black bears and coyotes in the Ponderosa forests near our home northern New Mexico, where I tried — and failed — in a career as a schoolteacher.

These days, I need to be reminded to surround myself with the things I love. I need to remember that more adventures are possible. Joseph understands. This is why he restored my old red bike for me, taking care not to paint over any memories in the process.

 

Total Eclipse of the Sun

Yesterday, we got back late from a long drive – or was it a short campout? – to a wild place in the middle of Wyoming. We had gone there like hundreds of others to witness the total eclipse of the sun. I had chosen the most remote place I could think of under the band of totality: the Gas Hills, thirty miles or so north of Jeffrey City. Jeffrey City swelled decades ago during the uranium boom but is now nearly a ghost town. The road north is all dirt and gravel, with ruts that challenged the abilities of our rented sedan.

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The light looks like early evening, but the shadows look like midday a few minutes before the total solar eclipse in the Gas Hills of Wyoming

On the drive up, we stopped at the visitor’s center in the small town of Baggs, Wyoming, and the docent there told us that Thomas Edison had witnessed the last total eclipse in the area in 1918. It was on this trip near here, she said, that he came up with the idea for the incandescent light. She looked skeptical. So did I, but I now understand how a totality could spur the mind of a genius in such a way, so I’d like to believe it’s true.

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The moon’s darkness approaches from the west

Nothing is ever exactly as you think it will be. No photo or video can really capture the experience of a total eclipse of the sun. It felt like the air temperature dropped ten degrees as a chill set into my hands. There was a scattering of stars in the midday sky, and crickets started to sing. The moon’s diffuse shadow engulfed us from the west as the sun’s light blinked out and in an instant, my solar viewing glasses went completely dark.

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No photo can completely do it justice, but this is the best my iPhone could do

Pulling the glasses away, there was the corona, an iconic image high in the sky. What had been over my head but completely invisible to me for the past fifty-plus years was now revealed. It looked like a crown of vapor, a thin, glowing mist, immensely beautiful. It was a glimpse of a star from the heavens as it sent off its molten gases into space, but it was also oddly familiar, as if this image was somehow carried in human DNA. After only a couple of minutes, it was gone. One of the moon’s huge craters revealed a flash, followed by a sliver of searing light along the sun’s rim. The moon shadow’s darkness raced away to the east, and it was like late evening again. The crickets went silent, and three antelope in the distance went back to their grazing.

Within the hour, the day had fully returned, and we were – along with thousands of others – headed south toward home. The drive back was complicated by traffic, and we didn’t get in until after 11:00 pm, but the ancient dance between the sun and moon was well worth a little trouble.

The Upcoming Totality

A few of us are headed up to Wyoming today. The weather forecast is favorable to see the total solar eclipse tomorrow morning! It will be my first opportunity to see a totality.

Even if you are outside of the totality, nature can still put on a good show. During the eclipse in May 2012, the totality passed south of us. We looked through a pinhole camera at an image of the eclipse projected onto the sidewalk in front of our home. The real surprise came when we turned back toward the house, finding it bedecked with little eclipses!

Shadows of eclipse on the house

The points of light created by gaps in the canopies of trees can serve as pinhole cameras and create quite a beautiful display. I wish all eclipse seekers and travelers a safe and happy day tomorrow!

The Abandoned North: Part IX – Reintegration

Waves

Waves on the Bering Sea

The Tiglax, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife research vessel, is contracted for the duration of our work on Amchitka Island. However, we have no weather delays, and our long days allow us to finish our field work about a day ahead of schedule. This affords the boat’s crew the opportunity for a short break before they pick up the next scientific team. After loading the ATVs and other gear onto the boat from the dock, the Tiglax heads back to Adak Island.

Me and Danika

Me, Danika Marshall, and the Aleutian Weather

At first, all is well. I had applied a scopolamine patch to prevent motion sickness early in the day. It was doing its job admirably, as it had on the voyage out to the island days before. As the boat comes out of Constantine Harbor into a growing storm, those with more sense have already retreated to their bunks, but I go up to the wheelhouse to chat with soon-to-be-captain John Faris (Captain Billy Pepper will retire at the end of 2016) and enjoy the ocean views. At first, the waves are about 6 feet (2 meters) high, and they are all coming at the boat from roughly the same direction. So far, so good. As the Tiglax approaches Amchitka Pass, the swells grow, and they begin to pitch the boat in random directions – front to back, side to side, and everything in between. It is not a huge storm, but it’s big enough for me.

Motion is greatest at the top of the boat. With no warning, the boat lurches, and I am hit in the stomach with a surge of nausea. I stagger down two flights of steep nautical stairs, grip the handrails in the narrow hallways, and make my way back to my bunk in Stateroom #4. After lying down, I feel better pretty quickly. The scopolamine is valiantly doing its job holding the nausea at bay, but it doesn’t give me any good sense. As soon as I feel well, I head to the galley for dinner. It’s not a smart plan.

After storm

Adak Island after the storm

As the night wears on, the waves grow, and we all run a real risk of being pitched out of our bunks onto the floor. That never happens, but I roll from side to side like a bottle in my bunk for most of the night. It is quite a challenge climbing down from the upper bunk and finding my way along the hall to the bathroom, all the while being slammed into walls from various directions. At this point, I am questioning my desire to ever climb aboard a boat again, but by morning, my seasickness is gone. We approach the port of Adak under clearing skies and calmer waters, though I doubt any of us got much sleep. While most of the team stay in their beds, I enjoy breakfast and coffee with Craig Goodknight, who was the only passenger to experience no seasickness at all during the voyage.

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Mt. Moffett comes out of the clouds on Adak Island

The team spends the night at the Fish and Wildlife Service bunkhouse in Adak. Fish and Wildlife employees do a lot of research in remote locations, and some wildlife refuges maintain bunkhouses for them. Earlier in the summer, we had all stayed at a bunkhouse at Brown’s Park National Wildlife Refuge in northern Colorado while we took our required ATV training course. But the house on Adak is a little different. Because it is so remote, guests  bring food with them, but they don’t tend to bring it back out. The kitchen cupboards are filled with all sorts of canned and boxed food, and there seems to be a historical collection of noodles. There is no way of knowing how long various items have been there, so I suspect that the foodstuffs accumulate faster than they disappear.

Rat traps

Trust me, rat traps are a good thing

One thing is for certain … the pasta collection gets no visitors who are rats. Fish and Wildlife takes rat control very seriously on the Aleutian Islands. Historically, seafaring vessels brought invasive rats to nearly all of the islands, and where there are rats, there are fewer nesting birds and other desirable, native species. Fish and Wildlife has worked hard over the years to  eradicate rats from as many islands as possible, restoring valuable native ecosystems in the process. While I chuckle at the rather obvious rat trap arranged between the refrigerators at the bunkhouse, I appreciate that it’s there.

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Eagles perched on Adak’s beach rocks

During our short stay at the bunkhouse, Danika, Craig, and I take the opportunity to walk the length of one of Adak’s beautiful beaches. There we see plenty of life, including a pair of bald eagles who are not particularly wary of us. Patches of blue sky appear overhead from time to time, revealing the slopes of Mt. Moffett and even the top of the more distant Great Sitkin, hovering like a disembodied head over a layer of  misty clouds.

We board the flight to Anchorage late in the morning but find that the flight from Anchorage to Denver has been delayed.

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The peak of Great Sitkin

 

We have all been up for a long time when we finally make our connection to Grand Junction. It will take some days for me to feel normal again.

On my first day back in the office, a co-worker who was a member of one of the monitoring teams in 2011 asked me if I was having trouble “reintegrating.”

This was a perfect description. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized it. I’d been vaguely troubled, distracted, and mildly ill since I’d returned. Some of my discomfort was residual dizziness from the scopolamine patches, and some was general haziness from jet lag, which I seem to be prone to, especially when traveling from west to east. But some of it was actually reintegrating.  It wasn’t easy to transition from such a strange, remote wilderness back into my  familiar, everyday life. Evidently, it happens to a lot of people who have made this journey. The Aleutian Islands are a beautiful, haunting place. I still feel their pull, like a mysterious gravity, a quiet tide.

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A marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) resting on Hulten’s flora of Alaska. During my adventures, I spent late nights in the stateroom aboard the Tiglax identifying the plants I’d seen on Amchitka Island. This image is a fitting ending to the story of my adventures there.

The Abandoned North: Part VIII – Amchitka Island: Natural Beauty on a Small Scale

Shoreline

Amchitka Island shoreline

Some of the first things I notice when I arrive at Amchitka Island are all of the coral-reef colors of anemones, sea stars, fish, and kelp that can be seen below the dock in Constantine Harbor. It reminds me that the Bering Sea is a richly diverse place in spite of harsh conditions on the  surface.

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Nootka lupine

There is a lot of natural beauty here, but it isn’t like the stark, volcanic mountains, waterfalls, or wild ocean spray of many of its neighbors. This part of the island is quite flat, although there are small mountains in the distant wilderness area that I can’t glimpse through the heavy clouds.

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A tiny ecosystem on an old sawn board, with an urchin shell ornament

Amchitka’s beauty is on a smaller scale: flowers, lichens, mosses, birds, and urchin shells. Whole communities of mosses and other tiny life forms are even developing on the  tarmac. On the island’s soils, in low areas that have been undisturbed for at least a few decades, thick pillows of peat have formed, with their own complement of plant life.

At higher altitudes, the ecology becomes more complicated. In these exposed areas,   winds dry out the soils and plants, creating bands of miniature shrub communities built around crowberry plants that alternate with with bands dominated by tundra grass. Neither is considered to be a climax community by ecologists because the bands shift over time, a constantly morphing patchwork of slow-growing life. Different still are the verdant ecosystems near the ocean. There is huge diversity here, if you stoop down and look closely enough.

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Bryophyte communities growing on Amchitka’s abandoned runways

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Plants along the shoreline near a rusty battleship mooring

One of my favorite experiences on Amchitka Island was witnessing flocks of Aleutian Canada Geese. They look like miniature replicas of the large flocks I see migrating in Colorado, complete with their striking black and white heads. But these have white collar feathers, and their honks are higher pitched. Every time I hear them, it makes me smile. Aleutian Canada Geese were listed as endangered in 1967 but upgraded to threatened in 1991. They recovered enough to be delisted in 2001. In the early 20th century, trappers brought nonnative foxes to the Aleutian Islands to expand the fur trade. These foxes decimated the nesting grounds of the geese. Lots of people worked to remove the foxes from the islands and relocated populations of the birds. These included efforts on Amchitka Island, where the geese were once extinct.

The human footprint since the 20th century on the Aleutian Islands is heavy and undeniable. But, here as everywhere, nature eventually creeps back into the works of human beings. My trip to Amchitka Island has reaffirmed for me the need to continue to attend to the remote places, the need to help them heal. Maybe they are the most important places of all.Chimney

The Abandoned North: Part VII – Amchitka Island: Military and Nuclear Devices

Rommel stake

World War II-era Rommel stake on Amchitka Island

We have all enjoyed breakfast and dressed in waterproof, cold-weather gear before we arrive on the deck of the Tiglax. The crew has already used the boat’s crane to lift gear, including a bunch of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) from the deck to the ancient military dock. The size of the dock is appropriate for battleships, not for research vessels, and my question about how we’ll come ashore is answered right away as the crew attaches a nautical man lift to the end of the crane. Basically, we’re just a little more cargo to be unloaded. I prepare myself for my first trip in a man lift. It turns out to be fun.

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The man lift in operation

During World War II, when the island was used as a forward base in the campaigns to retake Attu and Kiska Islands, a road was built for access to various military facilities. The road runs the length of the 40-mile (64 km) long island and is called Infantry Road. In 2011, during  the previous Department of Energy monitoring trip, full-sized vehicles were used to access the monitoring sites. Since that time, earthquakes and storms have damaged the road, making it passable only by ATVs. To get to the farthest site, it is necessary for us to ride over 25 miles each way. The temperature is in the low 40s (4-5 °C), it is raining, and there is a brisk  wind. I feel like a popsicle by the time we arrive at “Drill Site E” to begin our monitoring.

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Me, Stephen Pitton, Craig Goodnight, and Danika Marshall eating lunch on Amchitka sheltered from the wind

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife  Service published a fact sheet that might help a reader get better acquainted with Amchitka Island. Most of the structures associated with World War II campaigns, Cold War nuclear detonations, and  Relocatable Over-The-Horizon Radar (ROTHR) facilities were removed during cleanup in the late 1990s. What is left is a treeless tundra, filled with the austere beauty of lakes, bogs, and mist. Much of the mountainous northeast end of the island, beyond Drill Site E, is designated wilderness. The remainder of the island is part of the wildlife refuge.

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Team leader Paul Darr on the Amchitka tundra

That said, plenty of evidence remains of the military and other federal operations that once took place here. The lines of disturbance can plainly be seen on satellite photos. Some  structures remain, including a toppled officer’s club, an aircraft graveyard, a 2-mile-long (3.2 km) runway, and thousands of Rommel stakes poking up through the blankets of peat. Rommel stakes were used during World War II to make up wickedly simple defense lines. They are made of sturdy, rounded bars of iron, and the top is sharpened to a point. Loops were made in  the long, iron stakes themselves, and the loops were used to string lines of razor wire. Stakes like these are still being removed on more populated Aleutian islands, but they are visible across the landscape of Amchitka.

Left: The disintegrating wing of a World War II aircraft graveyard near Constantine Harbor. Right: The remains of an officer’s club from the 1940s. This building stood intact until only a couple of years ago. Now, only the chimney still stands. The island is slowly leaning back towards wilderness.

Long Shot

Monument describing the Long Shot detonation

It is hard to imagine how much effort went into planning and executing the three underground nuclear detonations on this island. The first was called Project Long Shot, conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1965. The second, Project Milrow, was ordered by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1969 under chairman Glenn T. Seaborg, after whom the radioactive element, seaborgium, was named. In 1971, AEC concluded its underground nuclear tests with the largest in history, Project Cannikin. All of the detonations required weeks to months of drilling time and the construction of temporary villages to house the engineers, scientists, and workers.

Cannikin, the largest and deepest, needed a bore hole about  7.5 ft (2.3 m) in diameter and 6,150 ft (1,875m) deep, although the concrete plug at the top of the borehole is about 30 ft (9 m) wide. It feels strange standing above the sites, wondering what the eerie detonation chambers far below are like. Nobody really knows, but the detonations were expressed on  the surface, most notably at Cannikin. It is interesting to note that the international environmental activist group, Greenpeace, got its start protesting the Cannikin detonation. The fishing boat they used to voyage to Amchitka was named the Greenpeace.

Cannikin lake

This lake formed only after the detonation of the Cannikin device

Our work on the island is close to the detonation sites, so we visit all three. For those that are interested, film of these and other events has been declassified and is available on YouTube (Long Shot, Milrow, and Cannikin).